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Blog of Sarah McIntyre, children's book writer & illustrator
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1. centaur eating breakfast cereal

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2. all about sketchbooks: an interview

People often ask me about my drawing, how I draw, what kind of sketchbooks I keep. I get a lot of illustration students sending me questionnaires and I don't usually have time to answer them. But I thought I'd do this one as a blog post, since I often post drawing here but much less often talk about what goes into making the pictures. So read on, if you're curious! These come from a student on the MA in Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge school of art.

How often do you use your sketchbook?

I go through stacks and stacks of cheap Seawhite of Brighton sketchbooks every year, maybe 20 or 30. Often I don't use a sketchbook, I just grab some computer paper out of the printer. I go through a big pack of computer paper every couple months. I try to do one fun drawing every morning, but then I do lots of other work-related sketches during the day, depending on what I'm working on. If I'm doing a school or festival event, I'll probably be drawing on a flip chart, not in a sketchbook. On some of my trips, I've kept comics travel journals in these sketchbooks, A5 size. If you want a peek at them, here's one from Alaska, and one from China.

Actually, some of the Alaska sketchbook images have inspired things in both Oliver and the Seawigs and the book I'm working on right now. I mostly drew these first in pencil, then in Pentel brush pen and Faber Castell Pitt pens.

Have you always used sketchbooks from being a child (doodling) or is it something that you discovered through education? And would you now be lost without one? 

I was lucky, my mother was a teacher and understood the value of having good art supplies around all the time. My sister and I had little painting easels and all the art supplies we could want: coloured pencils, crayons, watercolours, poster paint, coloured paper, even oil paints and canvases. I kept sketchbooks but my drawing wasn't limited to sketchbooks; I'd draw or paint on anything. I had a babysitter who impressed me with her drawings of feet and horses, so I remember keeping sketchbooks full of foot and horse drawings. I also played a lot of sports in school and we'd spend hours traveling by buses and ferries to basketball games and such. So I'd draw portraits of my teammates and that would keep us mildly amused. Those weren't terribly good drawings, but at least people could see the likenesses.

Do you take one with you wherever you go? 

I usually do slip at least an A5 sketchbook into my handbag. But I'm happier when there's room for an A4 sketchbook and my bulky pencil case. I get cross that we women are expected to have very delicate little handbags when we're dressed up all fancy. That's so silly.
Can you complete a project without a sketchbook or is absolutely essential to the way you work?  

Again, I don't necessarily need a sketchbook, but I do need lots of paper. Whenever I draw something, the first drawing doesn't tend to be very good. I don't mind that, it's like I'm getting to know whatever it is I'm drawing. In drawing, say, a portrait, I'll discover how the face works; then the second drawing will be much better, because I'll have a good grips on the face's basic architecture, and be able to concentrate on the composition, and making nice-looking lines. My favourite way to work is to make an ugly sketch on very thin paper (such as computer paper), then use my light box to draw a second drawing over the top of it, tracing the good bits and improving the things that weren't working. It's easier to use the light box if the paper's not bound into a sketchbook. But when I don't have my light box available, I'll draw in a sketchbook in pencil, maybe a couple drawings, then choose the best one and go over it in ink.

Do you set aside time to make observations in your sketchbook which are unrelated to current projects to experiment with media and ideas?

Yes, I think this is essential. This year I did a lot less sketches just for fun, and I've blogged about feeling depressed because everything has turned into pressure work; I wasn't taking any time to play. And play is essential to making my work lively and interesting, and it's the only way my drawing stays limber. One of the worst things I did was let people talk me into doing small commissions, thinking 'I can do it as one of my morning sketches, it won't take any more time'. But because I didn't have the same sort of freedom to experiment and mess up, it wasn't really play time, it was just giving myself the pressure of more deadline work. I need to stop doing that. Drawing trees in Greenwich Park has been one of the most therapeutic things I've done, I feel much fresher if I start the day that way.

Axel Scheffler recently said to our course when talking about sketchbooks about how in his final art he tried to retain the spontaneity and freshness he created in his original sketches, particularly with characters.  Is that something you try to do?  I find that I tighten up a lot in my final art which I find challenging to prevent and I sometimes lose the life that I created in my sketches, do you often feel this frustration and do you have ways of getting over this? 

I don't think that's true for me; I think I discover the energy of a drawing while I'm doing the sketch, but a lot of that is about getting a good composition, which I can strengthen in the final drawing. I don't really like my sketches, I think the final drawings look much more exciting and pop off the page better. But I know what Axel means, I've seen artists who keep amazing sketchbooks while their final art looks a bit dead in comparison. I went to an exhibition of E.H. Shepard's Winnie the Pooh drawings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and his pencil drawings were breathtaking. But his coloured paintings were very stiff and looked incredibly amateurish. It was rather comforting, to know that even he didn't always get things right.

Do you make notes in your sketchbook as well as drawings, are these just as important to your work? 

Sometimes I make notes. If I'm writing a comic strip, for example, I might sketch out the characters but most of the notes will be in writing, with arrows and crossed-out bits. I forget plots and dialogue almost immediately so I have to write them down, but if I see the words, I can instantly remember the pictures I had in my head.
What kind of responses do you get from your agent/publisher regarding your sketchbook work throughout a project, do they spot exciting developments in your mark making/ideas that you may not be aware of?

Character sketches have been important for some of my book proposals. For example, when Philip Reeve and I pitched Oliver and the Seawigs to Oxford University Press, we included a mix of pencil and ink drawings of Sea Monkeys, Iris the mermaid, the villain Stacey de Lacey and two of the rambling isles. The story idea was kind of far-fetched (islands that walk about and sculpt flotsam and jetsam into elaborate wigs) so we wanted to make sure the editors could really picture in their heads what we were talking about. (Check out Philip's sketchbook Tumblr; he also studied at Cambridge school of art.)

And David O'Connell and I drew a whole Comics Jam which we pitched to our publisher, which turned into our published Jampires picture book. (Our sketchbooks were the scanned pages we'd send back and forth to each other, page by page.) Here's one of the sketchbook pages, when we were adapting the comic into a picture book:

For my second book with OUP (Cakes in Space), the editor was already happy with the text and didn't need a pitch so I went into doing thumbnails roughs and pencil roughs (which are a little bit like working in a sketchbook; they're very rough drawings). For my third book with Philip, it has a larger cast, so I've created a sheet with all the characters drawn onto it. But some of them have already changed quite a bit, now that I'm doing the pencil roughs.

Has a random scribble in a sketchbook started a whole new project for you out of nowhere? 

Yes! In fact, my latest book, Scribble was inspired by something I doodled and tacked onto my studio wall. It was an actual scribble, with teeth, eyes and legs. A year or so later, I wrote a little story about it and tucked away the Word document in my files. When Dan Berry invited me to be a part of the team making 24-Hour Comics for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal, I was able to use the scribble and the manuscript as the starting point for my story, which became a 24-page comic book in the short span of 24 hours. (You can read it online here.)

Do you look back at old sketches for inspiration and ideas if you're going through a patch where you don't feel so creative? 

You know, I don't ever really feel uncreative; I always have more projects in mind than I could possibly carry out. But having a blog full of drawings is very helpful. I have a terrible memory, so going back through those drawings reminds me of ideas I've had. For example, Philip Reeve was looking at my blog and saw I'd done a drawing of Sea Monkeys. He brought it up while we were working on the story, and that conversation inspired the Sea Monkeys which appear in Oliver and the Seawigs.

I think the best times in my entire life have been making sketches; there's something about losing myself in whatever it is I'm looking at that's almost like a drug. And there's nothing more companionable that drawing with other people. My husband doesn't draw very often, but some of my favourite times with him have been when we've gone on walks and done drawings together. I love collaborating with people and some of my best work has come out of collaboration. Even in the Scribble comic, my favourite page is one I let the art students help me with:

I'm quite gentle with myself when I draw for fun; I can approach my drawing from two different angles: the first is the critical approach where I scrutinise it and judge what worked and what failed. If I didn't do that, I'd never improve. But the second approach is almost motherly; I see my drawing as something that has a life of its own, and just like a child, it might not be perfect, but I know it's trying its best. So I'm quite affectionate toward it, and I don't scrunch it up in a ball and get angry. (That would be like beating my child for not being perfect. Kids need hugs, not beatings, and it's the same with drawings.) I think I'll only keep moving forward with my work if I can always keep those two approaches balanced.

I've posted some more thoughts on my Frequently Asked Questions page. And if you'd like to learn more about how different illustrators work, I'd recommend listening to a series of podcasts by Dan Berry called Make It Then Tell Everybody. He interviews some of the best people in the business and they give loads of interesting insights into how they all work. Everyone works very differently and the most important thing is just to make and keep making every day, whether it involves a sketchbook, making sculpture, playing with your food or drawing silly faces on your tummy and then shooting a video of your belly button singing David Bowie songs. Sometimes the silliest things turn out to be the most inspiring.

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3. morning portrait doodle

Today's morning sketch:

And come open my window on the Booktrust Advent Calendar and discover my book recommendation!

You can buy my pick straight from the Phoenix Comic shop here!

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4. knight and dragon

You don't think the characters from the Summer Reading Challenge Mythical Maze are shut up in a cupboard during the winter, do you? No no, they're off having adventures, in and out of the library. The dragon's currently tormenting knights.

If you like colouring, you can print this out as a PDF to colour! Tweet me a photo, I'd love to see it. :)

In other news: Philip Reeve has blogged about his next big book, RAILHEAD. (No, not the book with me, the other one, without pictures.) It's going to be SO amazing.

Also, if you are aged 14-18 and love to write, or know someone that age who does, the BBC is running the BBC Young Writers' Award from today, with a deadline of 25 Feb. More details over on the Booktrust website. Also have a little look at Booktrust's author-recommendation Advent Calender, it's good fun. (Today's Laura Dockrill day.)

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5. elf on an errand

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6. christmas card procrastination doodles

Here's the angel who's going to flap down from heaven and miraculously write all my Christmas cards for me.

So you know how, in the last post, I gave you free Christmas cards to print out? Well, the problem with that is that you still have to WRITE them yourself. I'm terrible at writing cards. I don't want to write something short and meaningless, but it takes forever to write long customised messages to lots of people and it just makes me feel bad, because I haven't seen most of them recently enough. So I've been procrastinating.

Last night after dinner, Stuart and I were going to sit down and do our cards. But I crashed on the sofa and asked, 'Is it okay if I just doodle for ten minutes or so... to warm up?' First I drew Stuart in his slightly silly apron. (Good man, he was doing the washing up.)

And then I browsed Twitter, as you do, and kept seeing all these cool kids' drawings of animals and people with these kinds of eyes:

I thought I'd draw a picture summing up the allure of the Internet:

But I REALLY needed to get to work on those Christmas cards. So I drew myself writing them, a very attractive drawing.

This is what it FEELS like to procrastinate from Christmas cards. (Also, it's a Titian painting copied without looking at the paper.)

But really, wasn't I going to crack down and DO the cards?

See this lady? She's so good, she's writing her Christmas cards. Good lady. I love drawing that lady.

In other news, Nana Li and John Aggs posted this Instagram:

Yay! And Nicolette Jones has done her Sunday Times roundup, with lovely illustrations today by Sam Usher...

...Rebecca Cobb, Tony Ross and Emma Chichester Clark.

And hooray, she gives Cakes in Space a mention! Thanks, Nicolette!

I guess I should get started on those Christmas card, huh? Or I could watch what happens when someone dumps a huge bag of balls at the foot of an up escalator...

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7. print your own cakes in space christmas card!

Stuart said, 'Why don't we have a Christmas card? Where's our Christmas card?' ...Well, here it is! I'm not sure how many I'll manage to send through the post, but at least we have a card! The Poglites from Cakes in Space are thrilled to be learning about Christmas because they get a part in the Alien Nativity.

I'm going to print a few off my printer - at least for my family - and I thought I'd share them with you, in case you wanted a Poglite Christmas card to give along with Cakes in Space (or just on its own).

Here you go, you can download a PDF here to print and cut out your own card!

Here's what's on the back: a killer Christmas pud and the part of Christmas that makes Poglites go all giddy, a blesséd SPOON. (Poglites value spoons more than anything in the world.)

Philip Reeve; and I have had reports of more exciting Cakes in Space tube sightings! From Mandii Pope at Bank and Andrew Coulson at Holborn stations. :)

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8. print your own jampires card!

Thanks to a request by a Dutch translator named Sandra, you can now download my Jampires drawing as a card to give, along with your knitted Jampire (or Jampire pattern).

Click here to download the card as a PDF! Just print, cut around the edges, fold it in half, and there you go.

Speaking of paper folding, check out this amazing new video game, Lumino City, 'handmade entirely out of paper, card, miniature lights and motors'. So beautiful!

Lumino City - Official Trailer from State of Play on Vimeo.

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9. knit your own jampire!

Do you love Jampires, the picture book? Well, thanks to the sparkling skills of knitter extraordinaire Deadly Knitshade, you can now knit a companion to go along with the book! My co-author David O'Connell and I hope this little Jampire can warm up the cold season for you or a jam-loving friend.

Deadly Knitshade designed this pattern to be super-easy, even easier than the Stitched Sea Monkey, so even beginner knitters should be able to jump in. The pattern is completely free, and can be downloaded from the Jampires.com website. Prezzie ideas:

* Knit the Jampire to accompany the gift of a Jampires book! (Perhaps include some jam, from our jam partner, The Butch Institute.)

* Have a friend who can knit? Print out the knitting pattern and include it as a gift with the book and the knitting materials!

* Give YOURSELF a Jampire! Because they're cuddly and we can all use a cuddle.

So click over to the Activities section of the Jampires website, where you'll spot lots of other fun things to do. Hone in on the 'Knit a Jampire' tab, print out the pattern, and you're set!

If you get a chance to tweet photos of your Jampire, we'd love to see it! Tweet your photo to @jabberworks @davidoconnell @deadlyknitshade @DFB_Storyhouse and we'll be thrilled to see real Jampires in the wild! :D

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10. storytime

I'm finally on the mend after Epic Flu, but I've had a hard time getting straight back to work and my concentration's been all over the place. All I really want to do is curl up with a hot drink while someone reads me stories. ...So Philip Reeve obliged me, since he was just about to turn in an edited version of his upcoming book, RAILHEAD, and was hoping to catch glitches by giving it a read-through. I was more than happy to 'help'!

Gosh, it's a stonking good story. If you don't know about RAILHEAD, you can read a little bit about it over on Philip's blog. I'm not illustrating this one, it's more along the lines of Philip's Mortal Engines stories, but with a completely new amazing world and totally new tech. It comes out next year, early autumn, I think.

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11. cakes in space, in the tube!

So exciting, sightings of Cakes in Space posters are starting to happen in the London Underground! It's a good Christmas prezzie, so hopefully a few commuters, partygoers, weary travellers, panto-going families, etc will take notice. Here's one spotted by Sally-Anne Hickman:

It's like a childhood dream, these posters. Last years we had posters for Oliver and the Seawigs, and the very first one I saw was when my train stopped in front of it, and the carriage doors opened to reveal the poster perfectly framed in its doors. It was total magic. Here's another poster, snapped by Oxford University Press's Alesha Bonser in Piccadilly Circus station:

And news just in from Imogen Russell Williams and Susannah Northfield on Twitter: Cakes in Space is also listed in today's Metro 'Best Kid Books 5-8'! (Hopefully kids older than 8 - and adults! - will like it, too!)

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12. maleficently ill

I am so, so unwell. Today I felt like death and cheered myself up a bit by watching back-to-back movies and designing my own tombstone.

I think Maleficent is BRILLIANT, I totally loved it. It doesn't try to be a grown-up film like Pan's Labyrinth (which I didn't like) and it's too violent for little kiddies. I think I must be its target demographic; Sleeping Beauty was the first film I ever saw in the cinema. And Maleficent kicks Galadriel's butt any day.

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13. magpie

Magpie, drawn for Magpie That picture book blog.

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14. dinosaur police - first peek!

I've been wanting to talk about this book for ages, and Scholastic UK have finally tweeted a photo of the cover! So yes, look out for this book next spring!

Here's a look into my studio, when I was using a dip pen and ink to trace the pencil sketch onto the watercolour paper.

And here's the day I brought in the final cover artwork! Met Team Dinosaur Police! That's designer Rebecca Essilifie and editor Pauliina Malinen. We've put together a great dinosaur romp for you; we hope you'll like it.

Warning: contains pizza. Lots of pizza.

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15. leeds thought bubble 2014: jampires comics jamtastic!

Last weekend, the Jampires were out in force at Thought Bubble comics festival, to spread Comics Jam over Leeds! Here's team Jampires' David O'Connell, Matt Badham, Molly Bruton and me:

So what distinguishes Comics Jam from, say, raspberry jam?

Badges designed by David O'Connell; Jampires jam by the Butch Institute

A little explanation (as seen in the Thought Bubble anthology):

Our Comics Jam session attracted fellow Jampires like, uh, bees to honey. (These were Phil Welch and Katie White, who stayed with us and blogged all the way through the 24-Hour Comic Marathon at Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal, earlier in the autumn.)

We ran a Comics Jam competition, and here's the winning comic! It's by 13-year-old Jordan Vigay and 10-year-old Jonathan 'Jonny Toons'.

Congrats, guys! Here are Jordan and Jonathan drawing away at our activity area tables, buoyed up by jammie dodgers.

Actually, the competition was a close call. Their original Comics Jam was in black and white:

And was competing hard against this Comics Jam, which really zinged off the page with its colours.

So we struck a deal, that if Jordan and Jonathan promised to colour the comic right after the festival, they'd be the winners. (And they did, using a mix of digital and coloured pencils.) You can find out more about running Comics Jams at home (or in school!) over on the Jampires website.

So let's meet the creators: I filmed Jordan and Jonathan each giving a lesson on how to draw a character from the comics they self-publish. And you can get a glimpse of other kids getting involved with Thought Bubble:

If you're scrolling through this and can't see the video, here's the shot of Jordan and me with the Red Crow comic he publishes. (You can buy the latest issue, No.8, for £1.75 via his website.)

Issue 8 includes a Comics Jam that Jordan and I did at the end of my signing session in Page 45 bookshop's room at the Lakes festival.

Oh, and you may have noticed that Jordan dressed up! He's cosplaying as Captain Spaceington from James Turner's Star Cat (which is hugely funny and I recommend it for kids AND adults). Here's an interview with James on Comics Beat.

James was super-pleased to see his own cosplayer! Right behind him, you can see Liz Payton manning The Phoenix Comic table (a weekly comic which I also highly recommend).

And here's Jonny Toon's table! Not many 10-year-olds are on Twitter, but you can follow this one at @JonnyToons. (He's just tweeted the work-in-progress cover of his Christmas issue.)

I was very impressed with Jonathan's design skills for Crystal Orb...

...and the comics inside are funny and remarkably sophisticated for someone his age! Keep an eye on this guy, I think he may go far. It was great to see him teaming up with Jordan to draw stuff; they're a real power duo.

And of course, if you read the Guardian, Independent, Vogue, almost any newspaper, you'll have seen articles about Zoom Rockman, who's been making comics since he was 8. He's 14 now, and has a lot of issues under his belt. He sources local advertising and has been a real pioneer in kids self-publishing comics. Check out his website and you can follow him on Twitter as @The_ZoomComic

I love the Skanky Pigeon quill pens!

His younger brother, Ace Rockman, also loves to draw and drew up a storm at the activity tables. (Great hat, Ace!)

Here's a video Zoom made about how to make comics when he was much younger and still too shy to talk on camera.

And it was great to see the debut of TEAM KETCHUP with their comics anthology Issue No.1! They found local Yorkshire funding and the kids involved worked shifts at the table, selling their comic and badges and running their doodle area. If you have questions about how they did it, have a chat with coordinators @_Joolze, @Coldjenius and @beth_k_t.

And you can follow Team Ketchup collectively as @theteamketchup! Here's a recent tweet of their doodle wall:

One of the coolest thing about Thought Bubble is seeing parents and kids geeking out together about books, comics and artwork. It's such an awesome way to spend time with your kid and let them see that reading is fun, without turning it into a lesson. This family were a joy to watch, and that little Green Lantern Guardian went straight for the books and got stuck into them. Ha, one of the funny things about Thought Bubble was that my picture books sold much better than my chapter books. Usually it's the other way around at book festivals; people see Oliver and the Seawigs or Cakes in Space and prefer them to the picture books because they have more words and are therefore deemed more like 'proper books'. Whereas I'd see Thought Bubble people leaf through them, realise they didn't have quite as many pictures, and move on to the fully-illustrated picture books, with 'proper illustrations'. This crowd is a visual crowd, and they appreciate reading pictures as much as words. It's a wonderful place to be.

My Jampires co-author David O'Connell and I kept looking over and breaking into broad grins as we saw our teammate Matt Badham working his magic. He's SO GOOD at relating to people, I wish I could work with him full-time. He could talk to anyone, on their own level, and he made a lot of people feel very welcome. It was almost poetic. (And he also sold a heap-load of books. Matt could very easily lead courses for booksellers.)

Here's a look at the two activity tables we had in our area. We had four tables in total: one for display, one for talking with people, book signing, laying out drawing supplies, and two table with chairs around them for families (and anyone who fancied a sit-down) to gather and draw. Some people wanted to keep their drawings, but we hung a lot of them up on the backboards and had a flip-chart ready for people to draw on and other creators to come over and do drawing demonstrations.

Some people did Comics Jams with other people, but a lot of kids were happy just to draw comics on their own. We found they didn't actually want much adult intervention; most of them were familiar with comics and happy to be left alone to get on with making things.

There were LOTS of jammie dodgers. When we ran out, we gave Jordan and Jonathan money to go off to the Tesco and buy us more.

It was fun seeing people of all ages getting stuck in.

Some people were a bit young to draw comics, or just wanted to do something a bit more relaxing, and we had a sheet posted, showing them how to draw a Jampire.

I always love seeing the Jampire variations. (I hope someone someday writes a symphony called The Jampire Variations.)

Flip chart fun times:

(Who can even SPELL 'submarine'?)

Here's Jordan and his mum, running The Phoenix Comic tables for awhile, so Liz could run around and talk to people.

And look at the fabulous volunteers, in their matching Thought Bubble staff t-shirts! They're designed by partners Donya Todd and Jack Teagle. (I sat next to Jack and Donya for a full 24 hours to do our 24-hour comic, and they're both ace.) The lady in the middle was our main contact for the family activity area, Martha Julian, and she really worked with us to make the best possible space for everyone. Thanks so much, Martha and team!

Of all the comics festivals I've been to, Thought Bubble and Lakes have by far been the best organised, and you could really tell, the way everyone talked about them so positively afterward. They made creators feel welcome, and we didn't have to fight like cats to make sure we had all our backboards, and they went out of their way to get stuff for us, to make things work more smoothly. Having a team in matching t-shirts is really helpful, there's always someone in view that you can run over to and get some help. I also did some planning with Lisa Wood (shown here) and Clark Burscough. If you follow @ThoughtBubbleUK, that's Clark manning the Twitter feed.

Huge thanks from Dave and me, and team Jampires!

Another cool thing about Thought Bubble is that kids can meet their favourite creators milling about everywhere! Here's The Phoenix Comic's Matt Baxter at the activity table:

Hey, look, it's my studio mate Gary Northfield! Gary did some awesome drawings and little watercolour paintings at his table. Check out his family-friendly The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs and Gary's Garden comic books; they're ace. Gary's the guy who originally walked me through how to do workshops and went with me on my first library event.

Check it out, Glasgow-based Adam Murphy and Lisa Murphy, creators of Corpse Talk! Lisa's done colourist work for Adam, Gary and lots of other people, and she's an important part of The Phoenix Comic team. I'd never really talked properly with her and Adam (other than fleeting festival chic-chat) but we had dinner together on our first night and really got to chat, which was one of my highlights of the whole trip.

Here's a look at their latest Phoenix cover. ZING!

And it's Neill Cameron and family! Neill's latest book, How to Make Awesome Comics is something I've been waiting a long time for; something I can recommend to kids who want to know more about making comics but are too young for the Scott McCloud books. Neill packs in loads of inspiring challenges and tips to get kids drawing and writing comics. And he's great at running workshops, too. In fact, Gary, the Murphys and Neill are all good at that, book 'em into your event diary, librarians, festival people, teachers, etc. His wife, Di Cameron, works at The Story Museum in Oxford, so they're a story-packed power team.

Neill and Adam had printed up their own Comics Jam for the festival, a humourous horror story called The Curse of Barry Starkey, which you can read about on Neill's website here.

Thought Bubble was so large this year that it filled three separate huge venues, all inside the big square at the Royal Armouries. The Jampires Comics Jamtastic area was in the Royal Armouries Hall, and there was a real effort to make that area the most kid-friendly place, including a special chill-out lounge for people with autism. In the middle of the square, the organisers erected a white marquis called 'The Teepee', a slightly misleading name because it was Enormous. A lot of the celeb signings were happening in there. And across the square was New Dock Hall, which has much higher ceilings, black walls and hosted more of the grown-up comics (although there was still a lot of family-friendly stuff there).

I first made a bee-line for Philippa Rice's table. I love Philippa's comics, and she always makes the most beautiful table displays. When I do talks about getting kids involved in comics festivals, I always show photos of Philippa's tables because I think I would have LOVED to have made dioramas and things like this as a kid. Check it out:

And a closer look. Those are real lights in there! So awesome.

Last year I came to Thought Bubble as a punter and had a great time going to events, browsing comics and talking with people at their tables. I'm quite tempted to do that again, one year at table, one year as punter, on and off. This year I hardly had any time to see anything, but the Jampires team let me off for half an hour to run around and see as much of the festival as I could. (Huge apologies if I didn't manage to say hello to you as I madly dashed about!) This book by Becky Palmer caught my eye, La Soupière Magique (The Magic Tureen?). Becky originally wrote it as The Biggest Helping but she couldn't find an English-language publisher, so she got it published in French instead, by SarBacane. You can see some pages of it here on her blog and it is GORGEOUS. It's quite startling to think that this is her very first comic book. Wow!

Hey look, it's Dan Berry, who ran our 24-Hour Comic Marathon! He makes fab comics and always uses hand gel. If you're not following him on Twitter, get on the case: @thingsbydan. And he also makes wonderful, professional-quality podcasts with my favourite comics creators for his programme Make It Then Tell Everybody. Check it out!

Here's Mhairi Stewart and friend manning the Roller Grrrls table she runs with Gary Erskine. There were table neighbours at the very first comic con I did by myself, and I was very clueless and they made me feel incredibly welcome. I love those guys.

And I'm a big fan of all three people here! That's Moshi Monsters' Nana Li, buying prints from North-Wales-based Jonathan Edwards (aka Jontofski) and Louise Evans (aka Felt Mistress).

Coffee time for Lizz Lunney, Joe Decie and Joe List. ...Oh, look, Decie has posted a Thought Bubble DRINKS TASTE TEST.

On Saturday night, Molly and I trotted along to the British Comic Award ceremony, hosted by a blue-suited Adam Cadwell and David Monteith, where we got to hear Maura McHugh interviewing Hall-of-Fame winner Posy Simmonds. Here's Molly, Posy and Maura with Alison Sampson, who won the New Talent award. Congrats! I was also hugely chuffed that Isabel Greenberg won Best Book for The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. (You can read my fangirl meltdown blog post about it here.) And it was no surprise, Luke Pearson winning the Young People's Comic Award again, this time for Hilda and The Black Hound. The competition was stiff, but Hilda is MEGA.

You can read about the awards over on their website here. (Vern and Lettuce won it back in 2011 and you can read my blog post about that here.) I was a judge last year and it was great to see fellow judge Jamillah Knowles again! She caught me up on some of the comics I was missing out on by being at a table.

Okay, now for a few costumes:

Ha ha, here's when things started to get a little weird:

And finally, a good place to end, Dr Mel Gibson with the elephant in the room:

Oh wait! One more thing... what is this? Ha ha, this is what I look like to the kids I'm working with:

(THANKS, Jordan and Jonathan.)

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16. drawing challenge: the not-looking game

Today's tea break Drawing Challenge was to draw a self portrait without looking at the paper. Go on, try it; the results can be quite funny! The more effort you put into drawing lots of details (hair, eyelashes, stubble, etc), the more wacky and interesting it can look.

I had fun playing this over the weekend with a couple people who stopped by our area at Thought Bubble comics festival in Leeds. I want to write a blog post on that, so stay posted!

Photo by Jody Lawson

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17. sparkly night with scholastic uk

Scholastic UK used to be my one publisher who never threw a party, but this year they blew apart that assumption by throwing a big glittering bash on the top of Centre Point in central London.

Here's my lovely picture book editor, Pauliina Malinen Teodoro (who worked with me on the tail end of Superkid, There's a Shark in the Bath and a secret new book I wrote and illustrated, coming out in the spring. Pauliina's from Finland, so English isn't even her first language, which is pretty impressive.

And here's the amazing Sheila Vaughan, who sort of runs the whole place at Scholastic and is always the first person I see when I get in. She's seen everyone come through the door and has loads of good stories to tell.

Check out the view! I'd never been up Centre Point before, so it was super exciting.

I felt slightly embarrassed when I got home and saw my photos because there are loads of amazing people I didn't get around to snapping, but I shot way too many photos of a certain few hooligans.

Here are The Grunts' Philip Ardagh and The Gruffalo's Axel Scheffler getting cosy in the photo booth:

It's Horrible Histories' Martin Brown and Tom Gates' glittering Liz Pichon! I somehow adopted and came home with a white feather boa that evening.

I hear Liz was one of the main reasons we got a party this year, she kept saying 'WHY DON'T WE HAVE A PARTY??' We love Liz.

And illustrator Adam Stower, who has the biggest grin in publishing.

Excellent picture book duo, illustrator Laura Ellen Anderson and writer Cerrie Burnell. (Laura also writes and draws Evil Emperor Penguin for The Phoenix and Cerrie presents on CBeebies.)

MetaWars master Jeff Norton. (And yes, I am wearing a record and a disco ball on my head. It's fairly quick to assemble if you fancy a go at it.)

Here are Jane Willis and Julian Dickson, who are looking after me at United Agents while Jodie Hodges is away on maternity leave:

And fantastic Mark Lowery! His Socks are Not Enough and Pants are Everything books had me laughing out loud.

Shiny in silver, writer Abie Longstaff!

I had to cut myself out of this photo with illustrator Guy Parker-Rees because I was doing this thing with gaping my mouth in all the photos at the end of the evening and it's very annoying to look at them in succession. Guy, however, is not annoying AT ALL.

I finally, FINALLY met writer and reviewer Philip Womack. People were always saying to me, 'Surely you know Philip Womack, he goes to all the parties', etc, but we'd NEVER met. And I'd started to create strange mythologies in my head about him, so it was about time we put things straight.

Here's Tereze Brikmane, who's taken over George Hanratty's job managing Tales on Moon Lane bookshop in Herne Hill.

And the excellent John McLay, who runs the Bath lit fest. I keep wondering why he's 'DragonDentist' on Twitter and then I always forget to ask.

Our new CEO Catherine Bell gave a speech and there was much jollity. And Scholastic even packed us a little snack for the train ride home. Thanks so much, Scholastic! (You can follow them on Twitter: @scholasticuk)

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18. get ready for leeds thought bubble: comics jamtastic!

Hey, I want to do a big shout-out for Thought Bubble comics festival in Leeds next weekend! This is one of the very best comics festivals in the UK - in the world, even - and worth travelling far to vist. Last year I went as a punter so I could just enjoy it, chat with people, go to talks and browse the comics. (You can see my blog write-up here.) This year David O'Connell and I are running the Family Activity area, Jampires present: COMICS JAMTASTIC!

I've done this in two previous years - 2011 and 2010 - and it was great because it was a place people could crash at a table if they needed to sit down, chill out and just DRAW. We had visitors of all ages, and some great artwork and comics came out of it! Dave and I have been getting ready for it, with some decorative bits and bobs:

And Dave's been printing badges:

We'll do a bit of live drawing:

But mostly we want to see YOU draw! You can take part in Comics Jams with other people and watch your characters come to life as you swap papers. (To find out more about how a Comics Jam works, check out our guide here.) For young children, we'll have simpler Jampires-themed drawing activities. The festival's so large that there are three huge halls full of tables, but we'll be in the Royal Armouries, and Kristyna Baczynski has kindly drawn a floorplan.

I'm excited because we'll be near several other creators whom I know do excellent family-friendly stuff. I'm sure there are more people there who will be producing things that kids will like, but I've marked in pink the ones in our hall that I'm certain you should look out for, including Gary Northfield (my studio mate), Neill Cameron, Adam Murphy, James Turner, The Phoenix Comic, Cinebook (Yoko Tsuno, Yakari, Lucky Luke comics), Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time adaptation), and Zoom Rockman.

Of course, Dave and I will be selling and signing our Jampires picture book and also the Comics Jam it was based on, Jampires: the Great Doughnut Mystery.

If you buy a copy of Jampires, we'll also give you a free pot of specially commissioned Jampires jam!

Dave will be selling his Monster and Chips books:

And I may have a few more picture books than these, but I'll definitely have my new books, Cakes in Space and There's a Shark in the Bath, along with original artwork from my Lakes 24-Hour Comic, Scribble (£20 a page).

I can't recommend this festival highly enough; do make an effort to come, and bring your family! It's a great place to stock up on Christmas prezzies, get ideas for making things, and be inspired by comics, many of which you won't be able to find in shops. Dress up as your favourite character if you like, it's all part of the fun!

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19. shark & unicorn: spooky

Here's my Shark & Unicorn comic strip that ran last weekend in The Funday Times section of The Sunday Times. The film theme for the issue was The Book of Life, but I was asked not to use the word 'ghost' or 'haunted'. (Thus the 'spookies'; I had to be a bit creative.)

Actually, The Book of Life looks interesting, I'll include the trailer:

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20. a peek at the 24-hour comic marathon

So what's it like to make a whole book in 24 hours? Last weekend I took part, with six other artists - Jack Teagle, Kristyna Baczynski, Warwick Johnson Cadwell, Dan Berry, Fumio Obata and Joe Decie - in the 24-Hour Comic Marathon at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal.

I've posted the pages of my comic so you could read them online here. And you can read about the 24-Hour Comic dare on Scott McCloud's website.

I was kind of scared in the days leading up to our 24-Hour Comic Marathon. The longest I've ever worked without going to bed is about 17 hours, and that was miserable. That was when my picture book You Can't Scare a Princess! was due, and I started to go a bit mental from lack of sleep. I did it a few days in a row and went between feeling horrible and headachy to feeling sort of elated, and thinking that everything was terribly funny and posting a very stupid video song on YouTube. I wasn't looking forward to doing that again.

In the week before going to Kendal, I'd been very busy doing thumbnails roughs for the next book with Philip Reeve, so I hadn't had time to do much planning. Not that we participants were expected to plan for the 24-Hour Comic. The original idea was that people would begin the challenge completely unprepared, sometimes even get the story topic when the clock started. But our coordinator, the fabulous Dan Berry, let us think of our story in advance, and write down some ideas. Nearer the date, people started posting thumbnail roughs, and even pencil roughs. Dan tweeted that he'd made a whole rough draft of his book like this:

To be fair, he was running the whole thing and would be helping us if we needed it, so we couldn't begrudge him being prepared. Also, we were getting the comics printed and so he wanted them to be GOOD, not just finished. Kristyna Baczynski has a very detailed, precise style, and was also worried she wouldn't have enough time, and made pencil roughs (tweeting this photo):

I got very nervous that my comic was going to look terrible compared to everyone else's. I don't usually like to compare myself to others, but I didn't want to let everyone down by making the one sloppy, nonsensical book. I did start with a storyline, something I'd considered for a picture book but thought I'd like to try out as a comic. And I did these rough thumbnails, trying to see how it might adapt. But that was all. I could barely read my own doodles.

Here's Warwick Johnson-Cadwell and me looking at Dan's amazing sketchbook. And Dan's colour palette preparations, stuck to the wall of our workspace at the hotel.

In the hours leading up to the 3pm start, I thought, I could either stress out and get started by doing some pencil roughs, or I could walk outdoors and get some fresh air, since I'd be sitting flat on my bum for a very long time. That seemed the zen thing to do. I went on the Woodland Trail behind the hotel. I tweeted photos of my fingers. I pretended I was BRAVE.

I wrote a postcard. My stomach was doing flips.

Some people arrived with a big delivery from Morrison's, who had donated extra food for our venture. The night before, Donya Todd (who was there with 24-Hour comicker Jack Teagle) promised she'd stick around while we were working and punch me if I started to fall asleep.

We'd had a good dinner the night before, and tried not to drink too much of the Fighter Fluid bitter, brewed specially for the festival. (That's Jack with a pint.) Kristyna was the last to arrive (here's a photo of her with Fumio Obata) and then we were ready to start.

It was great working in a room full of other people. If I needed a stretch, I could get up and see what everyone else was doing. It's fascinating seeing other people's working methods. (You can see Kristyna and Dan, hard at work.)

Kendal College loaned us the equipment, and the lightbox (for tracing) was better than the one at my studio. I might have to get me one of these:

Here's Jack at work. There were several of us who used very limited colour palettes, partly to save time: my colour was yellow, Jack's was red, Warwick chose blue and Kristyna chose green.

I hit a bad stumbling block very early on. I thought I'd use my new Letraset pens for colouring, and I'd tested them on a Letraset pad that came with the pens. It seemed to work very well, with no colour bleed. But when I started colouring the comic, the ink started pooling in a horrible way (particularly when I painted faces), and it ruined my first page. Fortunately I'd bought a pad of Fabriano cartridge paper as backup, so I redid the first page and recoloured it. But it cost me time. (You can see the difference in papers.)

Dan had some blue-tack and as we went, several of us started posting our pictures up on the wall above our desk, to give ourselves a sense of our comic was progressing. (PHoto of Warwick and Joe Decie.)

One of the awesome things about the way that Dan and the Lakes fest planned the event is that we all had Kendal College assistants! They arrived in two shifts (here's the first), and they stayed up to do anything we needed, whether it be scanning, getting cups of tea, whatever we needed.

Here are Phil Welch and Katie White, who stayed with us the whole night and blogged the whole thing. And we had a visit from 24-Hour-Comic originator Scott McCloud, who had come all the way from the USA, and his wife Ivy!

The assistants didn't seem to have a lot to do, and they could draw, so I thought I'd set them a task. I had a big crowd scene in my book, and I thought, I can either draw boring bumps for heads, or I could ask THEM to draw lots of people for me! And they did! I drew Jamie the Scribble, the speech bubbles and the basic museum architecture in this double-page spread, and they drew everything else:

Here's how I found them when I popped into the next room to see how they were getting on with it:

One of the students, Janet, was particularly good at drawing and also made this picture of us while we were working:

A few people jokingly protested that I wasn't allowed to get help, but I never have a problem with that; I always think that a book wouldn't exist if I hadn't started the project, so I'll do whatever it takes to get a good book! I wasn't the only one who got help; Donya sat between Jack and me for some of the time and coloured in some of the red bits of his comic. It was nice having her there, and I could half-listen to their conversations.

Here's Jack at his desk:

And Fumio, just beginning to look tired:

I started to get more confident about the whole thing as the pages went up on my wall. But I had one assistant coming in on the hour and telling me how much more time I had, to meet the target, and I didn't have a lot of extra time built in. Every one in awhile I'd look over at Warwick's amazing wall and have to remind myself not to compare our work.

Before we started, Joe and I had discussed the possibility of going upstairs for a few hours' sleep, around 1am or 2am. Joe DID go upstairs for a bit, but found he was so wound up about the comic that he couldn't sleep at all, and he came back down. I got too nervous, it didn't look like I'd have any extra time, and I thought I might be groggy if I had to wake up. So I kept going, all through the night. About 7am, my Comics Dark Night of the Soul hit; my brain was in pain and my hand was hurting from drawing too much. My comic got very graphic - harsh silhouettes - and I had my character weeping in agony.

Just a litte while after I drew that page, Scott and Ivy popped in again to see how we were doing. I felt DREADFUL, but we wanted to take a group photo of them, so I roused myself to look okay for the photo. And something weird happened, I suddenly felt totally fine. It felt like I'd known I was supposed to be tired, so I was acting the part, but I wasn't actually tired at all. I guess it's just getting a second wind, but it took me by surprise. Actually, I think this photo was from the evening before, so maybe Scott popped in three times. Anyway, it helped. (And spot Junko Mizuno and Nick Abadzis in there, too.)

The OTHER thing that helped was that the Lakes festival planners had booked a MASSEUR to come in and take care of us! I've never had that at a festival before! And hardly any of our team had ever had a massage, so it was so funny listening to them fret before they went into her room, and then watching their faces as they came out. (They all loved it.) I had my slot booked with Linda Ashton for 9:50 and I had that time implanted in my brain half the night, looking forward to it. Linda's the best.

In the end, we all finished our comics. And everyone's came out remarkably well. Dan managed to get them all printed that same night, and we had a chocolate medal ceremony at the festival in the Page 45 Room, where we all got presented with big Marathon bars.

Big thanks to Kendal's Absolute Digital Print, who printed up 50 copies each, free of charge. Thanks to the amazing Dan Berry, who made sure everything worked flawlessly and put so much heart into the project, to Kendal College and to Julie Tait, Sandra Wood and the Lakes team who supported it so well.

We were all allowed to sell our comics, with a few kept back for the festival. Some of the creators are going to sell their comics at Thought Bubble in Leeds from 15-16 Nov. I don't have any copies left to sell, but I'll be running the family activity area there with my Jampires co-author David O'Connell. I'm hoping to be able to do something with my story, we'll see.

Did I enjoy the 24-Hour Comic Marathon? Unreservedly YES. I always want to make these sorts of projects and this gave me such a good excuse to do it, knowing it wouldn't stretch out for weeks or months. Someone on the night remarked that it was the amount of work you'd often get from someone doing a whole term of art college. Having other people around, doing the same thing, made the process exciting and kept me from seeing going to bed as a better option. Would I do it again? I don't know, but I'm awfully glad I did it this time.

Read my full comic here.

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21. north cornwall book festival 2014

CAKES IN SPACE landed in North Cornwall! And there was much merrymaking to be had with the Earthlings there, and CAKE.

Photo by Mike Bralowski

Such a fine location for the North Cornwall Book Festival, at Sue Harbour Robertson's house in Endellion, we rejoice to find Earthlings inhabiting such fine dwellings. Also, the abode contained the perfect materials to rebuild a perfect Nom-O-Tron machine, as the original had somehow been left behind on the mothership. (Thanks for your help, Sue!)

Photo by Sam

My co-pilot Philip Reeve and I discovered that our host, Sue, was also not entirely of this world, for we assembled ourselves for her very first SELFIE. With alien expert Moray Laing, editor of the Doctor Who Adventures magazine.

And what fine humans there were to be found after our landing! Unfortunately we did not get a photo of our wonderful co-host and writer Patrick Gale, or writer colleagues Matt Haig and Christopher William Hill. But I got to meet one of my children's book heroes, writer and illustrator Jill Murphy.

Jill's such a natural, convincing storyteller and her detailed pictures are warm and bring you right into the lives of the characters. I think my favourites of her books are Five Minutes' Peace and Peace at Last, both about weary parents.

Thanks so much to Patrick, Sue, the schools in the audience and everyone who made us feel so welcome!

Photo tweeted by @NCornBookFest

Travelling to Cornwall was also a good excuse to stop off at the Reeve Ranch, where Philip, photographer Sarah Reeve and I raced out for a couple quick hikes on Dartmoor.

Here is Philip doing a good Serious Author face. Also, he is branching out in his career to knitwear modelling, which is always a fine thing.

He laid the grave accusation upon me that I was not taking the walks entirely seriously.

One evening, Philip was on a songwriting roll and he and Sarah helped me come up with a couple more book-related songs. So a very useful trip. Thank you, lovely Reeves!

Zoe Toft at Playing by the Book has posted an interview for HAT WEEK(!) with one of the illustrators who most influenced me, Satoshi Kitamura. Go have a read!

And Scottish Book Trust have posted a encouraging response to our discussion about Co-Authorship. You can read it here, and I've added a bunch of links to the end of my blog post on the subject here.

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22. jampire attack on oxford's story museum!

I spent a lot of time with these little dudes: Jampire, whom I really ought to name, but who is still 'Jampire', and the Iron Bear, who is probably made of bronze and is really named Paddington, but I just like calling him the Iron Bear. Anyway, I spend a lot of time at Paddington station. And today I was Oxford-bound!

It's quite fun travelling in full costume, it makes so many people's faces light up. Also, I tried travelling with my Bakewell Tart hat in a bag last time and the cherry came off the top, so it's safer just to carry it on my head, all the way to Oxford's Story Museum. Which is where my co-author David O'Connell and I did our Jampires show!

Huge thanks to everyone who came along and drew with us! I'm lucky, both of my current co-authors can draw, so we can do fun drawing double acts. We taught everyone how to draw a Jampire, but then went on to create other beasties. (Mine here is a Sushipire and Dave's drawing a Ricepuddingpire.)

Photo tweeted by @DragonDentist John McLay

Oh, I must include the lovely poster Dave drew for our event. He gave me such excellent pointy feet.

Here are a few more drawings from the day! If you came along and want to do more activities, you can find them on our jampires.com website. Here's @helen_geekmum:

Tweeted by @McgrattanRj Rebecca McGrattan

We even sang our brand-new Jampires song, and got everyone to join in the jammy chorus! (Thanks for your help putting that together earlier this week, Philip Reeve!) I was nervous about forgetting the lyrics, and writer Holly Smale offered to come on stage again and help me. (The last time she did it was for my Shark song at the Hay Festival.) She didn't actually turn up, but she was well represented upstairs in a Narnian wood, dressed as the White Witch. (The best of the costumes in the 26 Characters exhibition, I think.)

And our Jampires jam-maker came along!

Here's Emma Preston-Dunlop from The Butch Institute here with her assistant. (Emma has just spotted a Jampire lurking in her jam, oh no!)

I came home with a jar of her Cherry Bakewell with Amaretto syrup and Almonds jam and must confess that already a shameful amount of it has been eaten. Uh... by the Jampires, yeah.

Emma gave a great demonstration about how to make jam, using very basic kitchen equipment, and everyone got to have a good sniff of the bubbling raspberry mix.

Bramble tats, that Emma is DEDICATED to jam, a proper Jampire.

When I arrived, Dave was still leading his comics workshop for older kids, and I caught the tail end of him signing his Monster and Chips books.

A fabulous day, thanks so much for hosting, Tom Donegan and the Story Museum!

Photo tweeted by @DragonDentist John McLay

Bye bye, Oxford! See you next time!

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23. SILK festival 2014, skudeneshavn, norway

Hello from Skudeneshavn in Norway! I've been doing intensive school visits today and Stuart's been traipsing about town, and we're both crashing in our guesthouse lounge having a rest before the official SILK Festival Opening Ceremony this evening.

We're staying in the same town I visited in February, Skudeneshavn, and it's great getting a chance to show Stuart around. (And if you're a burglar in England reading this, we have a big, scary German looking after our flat, so don't get any ideas.) We're staying at the guesthouse on the far right:

So here was my first visit this morning, to Grindhaug Primary School, where I showed the 11- and 12-year-olds how I made the Jampires picture book with David O'Connell (and the original comic book that inspired it). I led the group in drawing their own Jampire, then we talked about our favourite foods and designed creatures that could steal other food - Pizzapires, Chocopires, Spareribpires, etc. Then we used our characters to write stories in a big Comics Jam! Everyone finished with a four-panel comic, but each panel was drawn by a different person, so no one knew how their story would turn out. (When I explained about the word 'jamming' meaning something other than sticky fruit spread, they all knew the Bob Marley song, so that was good.)

And here's the second group, same ages, at Norheim Primary School!

I had a few minutes before all the kids were assembled when I could draw this poster for them:

Big thanks to everyone who looked after me for the day, including John Rullestad (not pictured here), Head of the Department of Culture, Jan Arve Hveding (who popped in to say hello), the culture coordinator (let me check her name!) and Head of Karmøy libraries Hanna Mulelid.

After Hanna drove me back to Skudenshavn, Stuart and I retired to the festival Green Room, where we found Norwegian writer Arne Svingen, who'd joined us at dinner the previous evening. Arne writes spooky books, mostly for older children, but all sorts, and does lots of school visits. He gave me a big list of Norwegian illustrators that I want to look up (I don't really know anything about Norwegian illustrators yet), and hopefully post links here. Here are a few, for starters, if you want to peek at their work:

* Ragnar Aalbu
* Stian Hole

* Øyvind Torseter
* Svein Nyhus
(More later!)

Speaking of spooky, I was a bit nervous of sitting in these two chairs in the Green Room; they looked like they might be alive.

But other than that, he Green Room's awfully cosy. I rewarded myself for the school visits a bit too thoroughly with lovely CAKE.

Okay, here are a few of the Comics Jams, in case anyone from the school is checking to see if their work got onto my blog! (And if you look here on my website, you can read a comic I made recently and find more comics here.)

A lot of the kids had never made any comics, so I was impressed with how well they did. Also, notice that they are in English. *gape* I hate to say this, but Norwegian kids write almost as well in English as a lot of the English children I've worked with.

And I'll include a few more Skudeneshavn photos, just to help me remember this place; it's awfully pretty.

Last night we had a music concert in a little house that wasn't a pub, exactly, but had the same nice feel to it.

And when we went for dinner at Smiå restaurant, the downstairs was packed with guys from this ship:

Another shot of our lovely guest house:

More news soon!

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24. SILK festival 2014, skudeneshavn, norway, part 2

Exciting, I got another page in the Haugesund Avis! Apparently the headline reads, Pencils in the Air, which I'm afraid is a bit of a stock phrase I use to get kids' attention while we're drawing. But it looks cooler in Norwegian. (Here's the whole article online.)

And here's lovely Stuart modelling for the SILK Festivalen Nordic Knitwear catalogue:

While I was in Skudeneshavn in February, I had waffles at Johannes' cafe and drew his portrait in the guest book. So this time, Stuart stopped by for waffles while I was doing school visits and spotted my picture in the cafe, framed! Johannes is the best; anyone visiting Skudeneshavn absolutely must stop by to see him.

My main festival event was a talk moderated by journalist Rosie Goldsmith, whom I'd first met in Dubai, and then Hay-on-Wye. Here she is in the festival Green Room, wearing the beautiful new jumper commissioned from and knitted by Skudeneshavn local, Silje Skaadel.

I went to another of Rosie's events earlier in the day and drew this picture:

Rosie was interviewing Dutch writer and journalist, Geert Mak, whose book In Europe was translated into a zillion languages and had a 35-part television series. His new book, In America: Travels with John Steinbeck documents the same road trip made by both men, more than 50 years apart.

I think I need a stronger prescription of glasses, as I had a hard time making out their faces from the distance, but here's the best I could do, drawing Geert:

And we got to have dinner with him and his excellent wife that evening; I hope we get to see them again some day.

We got to hear several good bands while we were at the SILK Festival, including a group called Poor Edward. (The Jampire approved.) It's kind of odd hearing Norwegians singing to a Norwegian audience in English, but they did have lovely voices.

On the way back, I managed to bash my Bakewell Tart hat on a door frame; here's Stuart being my excellent road manager and doing some surgery on it. (He managed to track down a shop selling red glitter glue surprisingly easily.)

One of the school events I did was in the Sea House with about 80 16-year-olds, and I taught them a bit about comics and led them in a Comics Jam.

The 16-year-olds were MUCH more shy about saying anything in English than the 11-13 year-olds I'd led the previous day. I really had to work to get them to volunteer ideas, but I think in the end that they got something out of it and, I hope, enjoyed it.

Here's a quick demo comic I made while they were jamming:

And a few of their Comics Jams. (It's a storytelling game, in which a different person draws each panel.)

Thanks to the enthusiastic teachers who took part!

I did a second Comics Jam session at Skudeneshavn Primary School with this gang:

I led them in designing characters inspired by Jampires, but which had their own food obsessions. (So they came up with Pizzapires, Chickenpires, Noodlepires, etc.) I was struck by how many Norwegian kids LOVE tacos. Apparently it used to be pizza, but now they're taco crazy. It's a think people there eat particularly on Friday nights.

Back in the festival Green Room, here's musician Maria Toresen, who taught me a new Shark song to use with kids when I present my Shark book. So now I have two shark songs! Thanks, Maria! :D

And I made a new friend! Here's Helga Rullestad with Danish fantasy and crime writer Lene Kaaberbøl. I had a good long natter with Lene and Rosie in their cottage and they're ace. I really want to read Lene's The Shamer Chronicles books.

We had a reception for the festival sponsors and got to listen to Moddi perform, good stuff.

And here's culture minister Jan Arve and his wife. (I drew his portrait on my last visit.)

This time in Skudenshavn, I made a foray into a fishing shop, which turned out also to have salvage stuff from old ships, including these two, rather odd, crystal deities.

Before we left, we got to go on a wonderful beach walk with our fab friends John and Helga Rullestad, who are a big part in running the festival. They have so much energy, it's incredible.

This is near where Helga likes to go swimming. It's been a warm summer in Skudeneshavn and she'd been swimming until two weeks ago.

Some more landscape photos:

Here's Stuart with Silje, who knitted Rosie's jumper:

And Helga and John, wearing a fine fascinator. Thanks so much for inviting Stuart and me to be a part of the festival! We had a brilliant time, and I hope the events went down well!

(Read Part 1 here.)

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25. utsira school visit, norway 2014

If you visit the island of Utsira (the one in the radio Shipping Forecast, in the North Sea, off the west coast of Norway), you may spot a little eeping Sea Monkey on one of the rocks. And you may wonder why it's there. Well, here is its story...

If you read my last two blog posts, you'll know I've been taking part as a barnebokforfatter (children's book author) in the SILK Festival in Skudeneshavn, on the island of Karmøy. When Utsira island librarian Margrethe Djønne saw me in the programme earlier in the year, she asked if Stuart and I would like to make a detour to Ustira for a couple nights, to visit their school. So after the festival, Margrethe (Maggie) and her mother picked us up at the local cafe and drove us from Skudeneshavn to Haugesund, where Stuart, Maggie and I caught the evening ferry boat.

Whenever we'd mentioned to Karmøy people that we were going to visit Utsira, they'd suck in air and shake their heads, warning us about the rough sea passage and telling us to lie down flat on the ferry to avoid getting sick. And that evening WAS quite windy.

We didn't sit up on the deck, no one did; everyone stayed on the lowest floor of the passenger section. And I thought the advice about lying down would just be for visiting tourists, who didn't have their sea legs. ...Nope. The ship was pitching like a galloping horse in slow motion. By the end of the 70-minute journey, EVERYONE was lying down flat.

But the advice was sound, no one got sick. At Utsira North Harbour, all the passengers put on their shoes and headed out into the darkness. And gosh, is it DARK on Utsira. Island resident and artist Marit Edie Klovning picked us up and drove us to a fisherman's house, where Maggie jumped out to collect some crab he'd caught for us, and his mother had prepared. Then Marit drove us all up the hill, stopping to turn the car headlights onto a mural on the water tower, painted of the island's first female mayor. The first female mayor in all of Norway, in fact, a midwife named Aasa Helgesen, who served from 1926 to 1928. In the dark, her massive head looked quite scary.

The car beams next lit up a white house, where we'd be staying for the next two nights. Maggie and Marit led us into the house, stocked the kitchen and showed us where the linens were, then disappeared back into the night. We lit some candles to make the place feel more cosy, delved into the food bags and feasted on crab and freshly baked bread.

We weren't exactly sure where we were. As the wind wuthered outside, we did a bit of exploring, first the kitchen cupboards:

I'd been talking with a lot of Scandinavian crime writers earlier in the week, so we got a little bit too imaginative about what Kylling, Farinsocker, Finger Salt and Grillkrydder might be. Next the bookshelves, where I pulled out these two rather special books:

We couldn't read anything, but the people in them looked rather jolly. I think the one on the left might be writer-illustrator Alex T Smith in a previous life. The one on the right might be one of my great-aunts or something.

We went to bed, the wind still howling. We woke before sunrise the next morning, and in the dark blue sky, I could see an old lighthouse outside our bedroom window. I ran around outside to see where we were, getting my socks all wet.

That white house in the middle is where we were staying. It's the Lighthouse artist residence, and it's where the island hosts people who come to work with the school or put on a local exhibition.

Here's a photo of the lighthouse again, taken a bit later in the day:

And the view from the base of the lighthouse:

I got dressed up in my Jampires costume and Marit picked me up in her car to take me to the school, while Stuart stayed behind, with his own plans to hike around the island.

I thought that we'd only driven a little bit of the island the previous evening, but I quickly realised we'd already covered almost the whole place. Utsira is very small! Here's a map, with the Lighthouse marked in red. The 'Utsira kommune' is in the same building as the Library, right next to the school:

Map from Google Maps

Utsira is basically a pile of rocks with a valley down the middle, a harbour at either end. I took this panorama later in the valley, and you can see a surprising amount of landmarks from a single location: the harbours, the school, the library, the restaurant, the shop.

Marit swung by her son's house, with a big split rock out the back, which is where she gets her married surname 'Klovning', which in English would be 'Clovenstone'. (Which is also the name of a place in Edinburgh and the country in my co-author Philip Reeve's book Goblins.)

And we swung by the South Harbour for a peek. That flat white building to the right of the red boat house is where people might also stay if they were overnatting on Utsira.

Then we arrived at the library! Wow, Utsira Library is well stocked! The first thing I saw was a little exhibition of Tove Jansson's Moomin books:

Maggie had put two of my books on display - There's a Shark in the Bath, Jampires and Oliver and the Seawigs - and I spotted quite a few other familiar names, too. Here's Maggie showing their Francesca Simon section. ('Rampete Robin' must be the Norwegian variation on 'Horrid Henry'.)

I drew a little poster for the library (something I often do, to make sure the flip chart pens really work):

And then the children arrived! My first group was the younger half of the school's 22 pupils. I showed my books to them and read Jampires, then we all drew Jampires together.

Jampires are a bit like vampires, but instead of blood, they suck jam out of doughnuts. I love how ours all had different personalities:

Then we talked about our favourite foods and they invented their own story creatures:

Here's a Pancakepire:

A Tacopire:

And a Pizzapire:

When the older half of the school arrived, we drew Sea Monkeys (from Oliver and the Seawigs and I led them in a Sea-Monkey-themed Comics Jam.

The idea was that we'd all draw four panels of a comic, but between each panel, we'd switch papers, so we'd be writing each other's stories. (Here's more information on running a Comics Jam.)

Utsira Library has a great comics collection for its size, and I wish I'd had more time to browse. Here are some interesting-looking comics Maggie showed me:

And picture books, too. This first one's a scrapbook of an artist's travel books, I think:

Maggie said that people don't tend to use the comics section very much, but I hope the kids I worked with will be inspired to explore a bit more in it. I mentioned my favourite comic, Calvin and Hobbes, which is called Tommy & Tigern in Norway, so maybe they can start with that one.

One funny thing about visiting Utsira: I'd assumed my visit would be kind of a big deal because they would get less visitors than your average school. But this was not the case! They have a decent budget for their cultural programme, a school cultural officer named Knut, and they bring in people regularly. So we didn't even have time to finish the Comics Jam because they were off to see an Oslo dance troupe perform! And I got to come along.

The troupe - Panta Rei Danseteater - led them in a warm-up, then put on a quite sophisticated modern dance about an old woman's diary, mortality and the passage of time.

After their performance, four of schoolchildren (who'd been working with the dancers) performed their own choreographed dance. And then the dancers sat on the floor and did a Question & Answer session. (And we all took a photo.)

The school theatre was new-built and gorgeous; apparently the community had been campaigning hard for the budget and won. The dancers had brought their own flooring, which rolled away into their van; then they pulled away the black curtain backdrop to reveal enormous windows overlooking much of the island. Amazing.

Lunch time with Maggie with Knut, the cultural officer, catered by the island's shop.

Maggie also asked if I wanted to meet the kindergarten children, and I said yes. But I was expecting they'd be four or five years old, and they turned out to be infants as young as a year old. (More of a day care, really.) They looked at me in slight bewilderment when I pulled out my ukulele. But they seemed to like it best when I drew a Jampire for them, and I left them, happily colouring it in.

Here's one of the mums, Katrine Klovning, collecting her son in a little onesie she'd knitted for him:

Stuart wasn't back when I returned from school, so I thought I'd set out by myself to explore the island, and went around behind the Lighthouse. Apparently Utsira is a birdwatching paradise; in peak season, there are more types of bird there than people. Oh look, North Utsira and South Utsira beach huts:

Even though I was wearing wellies, the ground was incredibly rough, and I have sudden visions of pitching onto my face and not being discovered by anyone but the birds and sheep before nightfall.

So I went back onto the main road, and met a fresh-faced Stuart coming up the hill. Hurrah! He'd already walked all the way around the rough parts of the island, but he came out again to walk along the roads with me.

I love this barn:

Such great textures and colours.

I made Stuart go all posey in his lovely new Norwegian jumper. (We actually bought it at a second-hand shop in London, still with the tags on. But we saw very similar jumpers being worn there, so he didn't feel like a silly tourist and wore it almost every day.)

Check out this Warhol-inspired barn:

And speaking of soup cans, we had to visit the shop, to see what sort of things would be on sale when it's the only shop on the island. It was a wonderful shop, with loads of fresh produce, pretty much anything you could want. But I thought the canned food section was the most interesting because of the mysterious (and occasionally funny) labels. (What is 'Snurring'? A herring that snores?)

I recall a childhood song that went, Fish balls, fish balls, yummy yummy fish balls/ fish balls, fish balls, eat 'em up, YUM. (Or was it 'fish heads'? Anyway, I got the song stuck in my head for awhile.)

Lots of Lapskaus.

Kjøttkaker and Sodd. Heh heh.

But we didn't eat out of a tin that evening, it was much better than that. Maggie had talked with Daniella De Vreeze and Hans Van Kampen, who run the island's restaurant, Dahmsgård Utsira. They weren't planning to be open that evening, as it's not peak season, but they opened just for us and Danielle made us one of the most tasty dinners I've ever had.

Not that it was overly fussy-fancy, it was just perfect; Daniella knew exactly how to prepare the mushroom sauce for the monkfish, and the vegetables were so tasty; the ice cream meringue dessert had some sort of special texture that was incredible.

And lovely wine to go with it. Not at all what we'd expected to find in such a remote place! Here are Marit and Stuart:

And we were also joined by Arnstein Eek and Atle Grimsby, who work for the Utstira Kommune administration. It's funny asking people there what they do for their job, because everyone ends up doing a lot of jobs on an island, so nothing's entirely clear. Atle first came there because he loves the birdwatching, and then never left.

The only reading preparation that Stuart and I had done was on the airplane, from a book by Charlie Connolly that I'd had kicking about the house for almost ten years, called Attention All Shipping: a Journey Around the Shipping Forecast. I'd never managed to get through it, so I ripped out the pages that we'd need (which was perhaps a bit naughty, but there you go). It was quite illuminating, and I learned that people from Utsira are called 'Sirabu' (not Utsirans). And, of course, our dinner companions knew all the people mentioned in the book, and Atle's Facebook-friends with Charlie.

We didn't get to see Daniella for most of the meal because she was busy cooking, and Hans helped her serve. But Hans disappeared for awhile to help with the washing up, then we got to see both of them for awhile. They're Dutch, and bought the old school house about four(?) years ago to do up as a restaurant. They'd never run a restaurant before, just an art gallery, but Danielle had done a lot of catering for the gallery - over a hundred people at times - so she knew lots about cooking already. I think they said that they visited Utsira, found out the site was up for sale, and came up with a business proposal, right there on the island, in three hours. They're pretty awesome. They remind me a bit of a Danish film called Babette's Feast, about a French woman who brings fine cuisine to a rugged little island in Jutland. There's one other place on the island you can eat out - a pub that serves pizza, chips, sausages, that sort of thing, but it's definitely worth popping into Dahmsgård Utsira, even if just for cake and coffee.

The next day was Art Day; I'd been talking with Marit about her work over dinner and really wanted to see her paintings and studio. And Maggie and a few others had mentioned that they wanted me to add to the mural collection of the island, and I said I'd be up for that. So Marit took Stuart and me to her place, where we met her family and had some lovely breakfast.

It was such a cosy house and table, her daughter was warm and friendly, and her grandson was super-cute. I love this photo, it looks like some sort of half-remembered Nordic painting.

Marit's husband used to work as a carpenter (and built their house, studio and workshop) but turned his hand in later life to becoming a fisherman, which he now does with their son.

Here's some lovely cinnamon cake Marit made:

And more nice packaging (this time it's pâté).

While I was talking with Marit's daughter, Marte Eide Klovning, I asked about her job, and it turned out that she's the island's mayor right now. She travels quite a lot, to go to meetings and things, so Marit juggles being a babysitting grandmother with making her artwork. I love the theatre poster hanging in her studio loo, with Marte on the left. I think she said it's a play about Aasa Helgesen, Utsira's (and Norway's) first female mayor.

Marit showed me a few of the paintings and drawings she had on display in the main part of the house:

This one in the kitchen's called The Maker, and has a real bit of lace stuck into it. Marit likes the idea of 'making' as much as 'painting'; she sees herself as much as a Maker as a Painter. I think I'm like that, too.

And here's a large one in the lounge. Until this trip, I never thought of Norwegian beaches as beautiful places, but they have soft white sand as good as Hawaii's (just less sun).

After coffee, we went around to the side of the house, to the separate building that's Marit's studio. You can see it there on the left, through the trees.

The first things I noticed were all the portraits on the back wall. Utsira had a Jubilee celebration of and Marit set herself the task of painting a portrait of every single woman on the island, from the youngest baby to a very old woman (104, I think). Many of them bought their portraits from her after the exhibition, but she still has some of them. I can't remember the exact number of portraits, but it was near 100.

The boxes were another part of the project; Marit likes looking for interesting driftwood on the beaches and she made these boxes out of bits she found. Again, there's one for each woman on the island, and it represents having a little space of one's one. Marit explained that a lot of people don't stay on the island, particularly women, and to keep living there happily, one really needs hobbies and a rich inner life. So these boxes are a bit like the things each one of them treasures around herself.

Marit had already sold this painting, but she showed me a postcard of it. I love the northern light on it; so atmopheric.

And this one, too. I once took a class at university on Northern European Landscape Art, and true to form, I've forgotten almost everything. But I have vague memories of other Scandinavian painters who use this sort of light in painting, and there's something very magical about it.

Here's a peek into two side rooms.

Marit's used some antique linens and lace effects in her paintings.

I was so pleased that Marit came to my talk on Skudeneshavn, and then took the time to show me around. Thank you so much, Marit!

The island prides itself on its mural artwork that's been springing up during the past few years. You see this light bulb as soon as you get off the ferry:

And there's a Norwegian video with a bunch more paintings shown here. I was starting to think I'd run out of time to paint a mural (which was okay with me) but in the last two hours, Marit kicked everyone into gear and raced me over to the school to paint a Sea Monkey on one of the rocks on the playground. I was quite happy with how it turned out, despite the rush, and I liked the location, where the little kids would be able to see it.

Then Marit and Arnstein Eek escorted me to another place to do a second mural, in a housing development by the North Harbour, and I expected to paint on one of the big blank walls. But that wasn't what they had in mind. Another artist, inspired by the Gaza conflict, had painted a sniper pointing a gun at a child with a balloon. And while the residents didn't mind the politics so much, they didn't like coming up the stairs in dim light and being confronted by a gun man. So they wondered if I could do something with it.

...Yikes! I didn't know what to think! Would the artist be angry with me for defacing his work? (They didn't manage to record the name of that particular artist.) What might I be saying, politically? I didn't know! And the ferry was leaving in 40 minutes. Marit helped me and we got to work.

Oh boy. What had I done? Well. Marit and Arnstein and another guy there seemed much happier about it.

The politics of Sea Monkeys. I don't even know; don't ask me to write a paper on that one. Also, we caught the ferry.

I was sad to leave. The Sirabu were so kind, and looked after us so well. The island is beautiful. I hope I can go back one day.

Big thanks to Maggie, Marit, the teachers, Arne, Arnstein, Daniella & Hans, Borislav the Bulgarian and the Englishman who both gave us lifts, everyone who pitched in to make the trip so wonderful. You can follow Utsira Kommune on Facebook if you want to follow their news. (I think the community is more active on Facebook than Twitter.) And they also keep a blog here.

The ferry ride back to Haugesund was much quieter, only about a quarter of the passengers were lying down, and some were reading and chatting. John Rullestad from the SILK Festival met us at the dock and took us back to the Viking Museum at Avaldsnes, which I'd visited on my first visit. (Stuart did a quick run around.) We had coffee there with John's wife Helga Rullestad and my new Danish friend from this year's festival, writer Lene Kaaberbøl. Oh, and of course, we dressed up.

Stuart's gone completely native.

Just before we left, Maggie handed me a bottle to put into my luggage. So this evening back in London, I took down to our neighbours gifts of Risebrød (chocolatey rice thingies) and brown cheese, and also brought along the bottle so we could all have a taste. Good stuff, Utsira Akevitt. Very strong. Thanks, Maggie! :)

(And well done, reader, if you got this far! I know this is WAAY too long of a blog post, but I did it, really, for myself, as a souvenir. I didn't want to forget anything!)

Goodbye, Norway. We miss you already. x

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